RIP Little Milton
Little Milton: an R&B great in any era
August 6, 2005
BY JEFF JOHNSON Staff Reporter
Little Milton Campbell's five-decade career is the story of postwar rhythm and blues in microcosm.
The versatile Southern soul-blues performer, who died Thursday in Memphis, Tenn., at age 70, was among the most versatile performers in the blues field. He had the guitar chops to hold his own during the rough-edged electric blues period of the 1950s, the gritty, gospel-trained voice and songwriting talent to score hit after hit in the soul-powered '60s and early '70s and the adaptability to survive during the disco years of the late '70s. Even in the '80s and '90s, when R&B was watered down by synthesizers and electronic beats, the sheer vitality of his songs shined through.
In 1999, when he made the duets album "Welcome to Little Milton," he held his own in the studio with many of the roots-rockers and blues-rock stars who idolized him, such as Dave Alvin, Gov't Mule and Susan Tedeschi. That album brought the only Grammy nomination of his career.
And his last album, "Think of Me," released in May on Telarc, marked a return to his classic sound. Milton's throaty tenor and single-string runs were in perfect form on an album that he hoped would bring a wider audience.
"He never got the recognition he deserved," said Ike Turner, who met Little Milton when they were teenagers in Greenville, Miss., just breaking into the music business.
Turner said he attended B.B. King's concert Thursday night in Highland, Calif., and the two were reflecting on the recent loss of many Delta-based blues stars who got their start in the 1940s and '50s.
"Milton called me a few weeks ago and said, 'Man, we should stay closer,' " Turner said. "Rosco Gordon had just died, and just before him Tyrone Davis. We were kids together, back when me and Milton were skinny like [Jimi] Hendrix. Now my girl calls him 'Big Little Milton.' ... All of the good guys who could play are falling like trees."
Turner, 73, played a vital role in Milton's career, steering him toward Sam Phillips in 1953 at Sun Records in Memphis. Later, when Turner had become established in Downstate East St. Louis, he sent for Milton, who landed at St. Louis-based Bobbin Records.
But it was Chicago's Checker Records, a Chess imprint, for which he scored his biggest hits, including "We're Gonna Make It." The 1965 song became a civil rights anthem, reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart and No. 25 on the pop chart.
His music became a staple on the play lists of Chicago's black-oriented radio stations. Late '60s hits such as "If Walls Could Talk," "Feel So Bad," "Who's Cheating Who?" and "Grits Ain't Groceries" marked a time in the life of the city's African-American youth, the same way the Beach Boys and the Buckinghams did for whites.
Chicago blues queen Koko Taylor, Milton's label mate at Chess, said she was deeply saddened by Milton's passing. "He was nothing but a bluesman, just like I'm nothing but a blueswoman," Taylor said. "He was a great blues person, guitarist and singer. I don't think I've ever met anybody who knows about the blues who could say anything bad about Little Milton."
After the Chess empire collapsed, Milton found his way to another seminal R&B label, Memphis-based Stax. Younger fans found Milton through his appearance in the 1973 concert film "Wattstax," for which he performed "Walking the Back Streets and Crying."
Stax folded in 1976, and Milton tried several other labels, finally settling at the R&B specialist Malaco. But he felt he never got the proper promotional push there.
While he was making the Telarc album last fall, he told the Sun-Times, "I'm trying to see if we can get a different share of exposure that we haven't gotten since the early Chess and Stax days. I'm not criticizing Malaco, but I hung in there for 19 years, waiting for promises that never came to be."
Jon Tiven, who co-produced and co-wrote much of "Think of Me," says, "Milton was very well established in the African-American community, and one of the reasons he came to me is he felt he wanted to get more recognition in the white community. And he was well on his way to accomplishing that with this album."
But Milton's friends will remember his warmth and sense of humor as much as his music.
Tiven said he last saw Milton perform at an open-air concert in Nashville, Tenn. Tiven, who had taken his dog to the show, arrived backstage sporting sunglasses. He introduced himself to Milton's road manager, who informed Milton that Tiven was there to see him. Milton took one look and shouted, "Jon Tiven isn't blind!"
Asked what he would miss most about Little Milton, Chicago soul-blues singer Otis Clay replied, "There's a word that we always called each other that you couldn't print. It was all with affection."
Services are set for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Greater Love Church Ministries in Southaven, Miss.